Russian soldiers leave Chornobyl nuclear plant, Ukraine says
Nuclear operator says troops suffered radiation sickness after digging trenches at contaminated site
The last Russian troops left the Chernobyl nuclear plant early Friday, according to the Ukrainian government agency responsible for the exclusion zone around the plant.
Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said the Russian troops who dug trenches in the forest "voluntarily received such doses of radiation that the consequences will be explained to them by doctors in special protective suits."
Energoatom, the state power company, gave no immediate details on the condition of the troops or how many were affected. But it said the Russians had dug in the forest inside the exclusion zone around the now-closed plant, the site in 1986 of the world's worst nuclear disaster.
The troops "panicked at the first sign of illness," which "showed up very quickly," and began to prepare to leave, Energoatom said.
There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin.
The UN nuclear watchdog said on Thursday it is preparing to send a mission to Chornobyl, after Ukraine informed it that Russian troops controlling the site had pulled out and the remainder were likely to as well.
We are "in close consultations with Ukrainian authorities on sending the Agency's first assistance and support mission to [Chornobyl] in the next few days," the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement.
Radiation risk to soldiers
The Russians seized the Chornobyl site in the opening stages of the Feb. 24 invasion, raising fears that they would cause damage or disruption that could spread radiation. The workforce at the site oversees the safe storage of spent fuel rods and the concrete-entombed ruins of the exploded reactor.
Ukraine's state nuclear inspectorate said on Feb. 25 there had been an increase in radiation levels at Chornobyl as a result of heavy military vehicles disturbing the soil. But until now, details of exactly what happened had not emerged.
Last week, two workers at the site told Reuters that they had witnessed Russian tanks and other armoured vehicles moving through the Red Forest, which is the most radioactively contaminated part of the zone around Chornobyl, around 100 kilometres north of Kyiv.
The two sources said soldiers in the convoy did not use any anti-radiation gear. The second Chornobyl employee said that was "suicidal" for the soldiers because the radioactive dust they inhaled was likely to cause internal radiation in their bodies.
After the Russian troops arrived, the two plant employees worked for almost a month along with colleagues until they were allowed to go home last week when Russian commanders allowed replacements for some of the staff to be sent in.
Reuters could not independently verify their accounts.
They were interviewed by phone on March 25 on condition of anonymity because they feared for their safety. The next day Russian forces seized the town Slavutych near Chornobyl, where most plant workers live.
Seida and the mayor of Slavutych said on Monday that Russian forces had now left the town.
Reuters was not able to independently establish what the radiation levels were for people in the immediate proximity of the Russian convoy that entered the Red Forest.
The Red Forest got its name when dozens of square kilometres of pine trees turned red after absorbing radiation from the 1986 explosion, one of the world's worst nuclear disasters.
A vast area around Chornobyl is off limits to anyone who does not work there or have special permission, but the Red Forest is considered so highly contaminated that even the nuclear plant workers are not allowed to go there.
In an interview with Reuters on Monday, the Director of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development's Nuclear Safety department, Balthasar Lindauer, described Russian troop actions in the area as reckless.
"Immediately after the invasion the site was taken over by regular military forces who apparently did not understand what this site is all about and we have seen in the first few days, a spike in radiation that is very likely due to the transport of very heavy military equipment," Lindauer said.
"So that gives you an indication that these troops do not know what they are doing and behaving recklessly as we have seen at the Zaporizhzhya power plant," he added.
Asked to comment on the accounts from Chornobyl staff, Russia's defence ministry did not respond.
Radiation level fears
The Russian military said after capturing the plant that radiation was within normal levels and their actions prevented possible "nuclear provocations" by Ukrainian nationalists. Russia has previously denied that its forces have put nuclear facilities inside Ukraine at risk.
Ukraine's State Agency of Management of the Exclusion Zone said on Feb. 27 that the last record it had on a sensor near nuclear waste storage facilities, before it lost control over the monitoring system, showed that the absorbed dose of radiation was seven times higher than normal.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said on Feb. 25 that radiation levels at the Chornobyl site reached 9.46 microsieverts per hour but remained "within an operating range" recorded in the exclusion zone from the moment of its creation and posed no threat to the general population.
The safe levels, by IAEA standards listed on the agency's official website, are up to 1 millisievert per year for the general population and 20 millisievert per year for those who deal with radiation professionally, where 1 millisievert is equal to 1,000 microsieverts.
On March 9, the IAEA said it stopped receiving monitoring data from the Chornobyl site. It gave no response on Monday to the workers' allegations.
The Chornobyl exclusion zone is still considered by Ukrainian authorities to be dangerous. Entering the disaster site without permission is a crime under Ukrainian law.
Troops 'had no clue'
In the weeks the two plant employees were sharing the complex with Russian troops, they also said they saw none of them using any gear that would protect them from radiation.
Specialists from the Russian military who are trained in dealing with radiation did not arrive at the site until about a week after Russian troops arrived, the workers said. They said the Russian specialists did not wear protective gear either.
One of the employees said he had spoken to some of the rank-and-file Russian soldiers at the plant.
"When they were asked if they knew about the 1986 catastrophe, the explosion of the fourth block [of the Chornobyl plant], they did not have a clue. They had no idea what kind of a facility they were at," he said.
"We talked to regular soldiers. All we heard from them was 'It's critically important infrastructure'. That was it," the man said.
With files from Reuters